The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Will Smith has become synonymous with big “event” movies and prestige dramas. Whether it's Independence Day and Men in Black or The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali, Smith's name is typically an indicator of something done on a grand scale. For this reason, it's good to see him shake things up by starring in a comparatively small movie like Focus. This new picture also serves as a nice bookend to Six Degrees of Separation, the film that gave him his first starring role. Both are about con artists, and you can't help noticing how his growth as a star and as an actor has added to his ability to pull off such a part.

Smith plays Nicky, a veteran con artist who meets a promising, yet untrained, scammer named Jess (Margot Robbie). She begs him to teach her the ins and outs of the business, which he does. She's a natural, with an ability to learn quickly that is matched only by her fearlessness. The two begin a passionate relationship, but Nicky eventually cuts her loose from his operation. Three years later, he's in Buenos Aires to pull off a scam that could net him a big payday. It involves working for a wealthy Formula 1 team owner named Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) with a secret formula for a fuel additive. Just when he thinks everything is all set up, he discovers that Jess is there, too, and she's dating Garriga. Or is she?

Movies about con artists are intrinsically interesting, because who among us isn't seduced by the idea of completely fooling someone else? Focus, written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy Stupid Love), offers up several really clever cons in its first half. Not only does it show Nicky and Jess scamming people, it also shows how they pull their schemes off. The attention to detail is especially impressive. Focus relies on actual psychological phenomena to depict how marks are duped, sometimes in subliminal ways. It demonstrates how the ability to “read” other people is the single most valuable tool in a con artist's kit.

All of this pays off in the second half, when Nicky and Jess are reunited. By this point, we know they are both very accomplished at their less-than-respectable trade, which leads to a tantalizing uncertainty about what we're seeing. Things begin to heat up between them again. Is she really scamming him? Is he scamming her? Are they scamming each other? Or, most intriguingly, are they both really in love and playing it straight? More than anything, Focus is about how difficult it is to have a genuine human relationship when your whole life is built around lies. When you're with someone you know has the power to pull off massive deceptions and create intricate illusions, trusting that they're being honest with you becomes a dicey proposition. This idea makes the film's romantic angle just as compelling as the question of whether or not Nicky will be able to pull off the con Garriga has hired him for.

Focus tells us that con artists have to possess charisma. They need to be able to suck people in and make them want to believe what isn't real. That's Will Smith in a nutshell. His onscreen charisma is well-documented, and audiences have gladly followed him through almost every cinematic genre. He is therefore entirely credible as a man with the power to integrate himself into the psyches of his targets. Smith does strong work here, as does Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street). Jess is a vixen who makes wise use of her greatest asset – her sexuality – to pull off cons, yet Robbie turns her into something much more than a sexpot, showing the fierce intelligence that drives the character. Gerald McRaney, as Garriga's hard-boiled right-hand man, and Adrian Martinez, as Nicky's goofy cohort, offer great supporting work.

Focus doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it's not the best movie ever made about the allure of con artists. (That would be David Mamet's masterful House of Games.) Given that the sexual chemistry between Nicky and Jess is integral to the story, it's odd that the scenes of them being intimate aren't a lot steamier, as well. The issues are relatively minor, though. By and large, Focus is a lot of fun. It's a smart, often wickedly funny look at two people trying to be true to themselves while being utterly false to everyone else.

( out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:


Focus will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Digital HD on June 2. An UltraViolet copy of the film is included in the pack.

The bonus features kick off with “Masters of Misdirection: The Players in a Con,” in which expert Apollo Robbins demonstrates different techniques for pickpocketing and misdirection, in addition to other tools of a con artist's trade. His work teaching these methods to the actors is discussed, as well.

“Will Smith: Gentleman Thief” briefly presents the actor discussing his character, while other cast and crew members heap praise upon him. It's fairly conventional. A little more interesting is “Margot Robbie: Stealing Hearts,” as it offers behind-the-scenes footage of the actress practicing con artist moves for her role. You can really see how much effort went into it.

You'll also find an alternate opening, which runs around three minutes and involves a heist, and about eight minutes of deleted scenes. Nothing spectacular here, but you do get more of Gerald McRaney's final scene, plus a nifty bar bet Smith's character pulls off.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are outstanding.

Focus is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.

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